The FT reports: “Colin Powell, US secretary of state, has directed US diplomats to lobby European governments against controversial European Commission plans for new regulations on the chemicals industry.” (1)
Why is Powell anxious? “Brussels [the EU] wants to force companies to register some 30,000 substances with a new agency, and to demonstrate that the chemicals they produce and use are safe.” Also “high-risk chemicals would require special authorization, under plans that have to be backed by EU member states and the European parliament. The Commission argues that the new rules are necessary because an estimated 100,000 chemicals used today are not covered by the current regulatory regime.”
The European position doesn’t sound unreasonable. Unless you are, say, a chemical company. And then, in Powell’s words, “the proposals will create a costly, disproportionately burdensome, and complex regulatory system, which could prove difficult, if not unworkable, in its implementation. US exports in most industrial sectors - totaling tens of billions of dollars - would be affected by the new policy.”
But Powell’s no dummy, so in the cable he told US diplomats to approach European officials by saying that "we [presumably the chemical industry] fully support the EU's efforts to protect human health and the environment" but "the [draft] text still lacks clarity and the proposals would require member state governments, manufacturers and exporters to comply with an extremely complex, costly and burdensome regulatory system." Nobody likes a complex regulatory system yet maybe when a lack of regulation leads to tens if not hundreds-of-thousands of deaths and disabilities it might be a good idea.
A Canadian Press article explains: “manmade chemicals in air, water, food and the workplace are largely to blame for a devastating cancer epidemic which will strike 41 per cent of Canadian males and 38 per cent of females, says a study released yesterday.” “The [Canadian cancer] toll is more dramatic when considered over a longer period: In 1921, cancer killed 6.6 per cent of males and 8.6 per cent of females, but now the death rate has risen to 27.4 per cent for men and 23.1 per cent for women, the report says.” (2)
According to Dr. Samuel Epstein at the University of Illinois School of Public Health and chair of the Cancer Prevention Coalition:
“Over recent decades, the incidence of cancer has escalated to epidemic proportions, now striking nearly one in every two men, and over one in every three women in their lifetimes. Even more disturbing is the recent recognition that this very high incidence of cancer is going to increase further still and, by the year 2050, it will be doubling the current very high incidence rate.
If you look at a cancer called non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma (the cancer from which Jackie Kennedy died), over the last few decades, the incidence has gone up by nearly 100 percent. When you look at brain cancer, the incidence has gone up about 80 or 90 percent. When you look at breast cancer, it’s gone up about 60 or 65 percent. When you look at testicular cancer, particularly in men between the ages of 28-35, it’s gone up, believe it or not, nearly 300 percent. When you look at childhood cancers, depending on the particular cancer, the incidence has gone up as high as 40-50 percent. These are all non-smoking cancers.
Is it because people are living longer that they’re getting more cancers? The answer to that is no, because when we talk about cancer incidence rates, we adjust them to reflect the increasing longevity of the population.
Can genetics be the possible reason for this major increase in cancer? Not at all. There’s no chance whatsoever that the genetics of human populations has changed in the last 40-50 years.
What about fatty diet? There’s really little evidence that fat is a risk factor for cancer. For instance, if you look at Mediterranean countries, they have extremely high fat consumption, particularly olive oil, which can be as high as 40 percent of the diet. But the rates of cancers, particularly reproductive cancers, are low. However, you find strong relationships between the consumption of animal and dairy fats and some cancers. But that’s a reflection of the fact that these are highly contaminated with a wide range of industrial, chemical, and petrochemical carcinogens.” (3)
Not only is cancer a risk. Danielle Knight reports, “toxic chemicals commonly released by industry into the environment in large quantities across the United States may be adding to the mysterious surge in child development and learning disabilities, warns a new report released here on 7 September.” And not surprisingly, “looking at the top 25 counties in the United States for releases of developmental toxins - where more than 46% of all reported developmental toxins were released - African-American populations in 14 of these 25 counties exceed the US average.” (4)
Even England’s royalty have come to recognize and speak out about chemical regulations. Prince Charles, writing in the Guardian, complains that, “our disregard for the delicate web that sustains our environment is leading to its degradation. There are in excess of 30,000 chemicals in products that we use and dispose of which have never been tested. The application of modern computational techniques coupled with improved environmental and health monitoring would go a long way towards rectifying this situation.” (5)
The second FT article on Monday was regarding “a US request for exemptions to a ban [under the Montreal Protocol] on methyl bromide, an agricultural chemical.” “The phase-out of the main ozone-destroying compound still in widespread use in industrialized countries will be delayed by the granting of temporary ‘critical use exemptions’ to the US and 10 other countries.” (6)
"Critical use" of methyl bromide, for the U.S., is substantial. The Environmental News Network explains, “under today's [Friday’s] agreement, 11 developed countries have received exemptions to the phase-out totaling 13,438 metric tons of methyl bromide for 2005…. The 11 countries are Australia (145 metric tons), Belgium (47), Canada (56), France (407), Greece (186), Italy (2,133), Japan (284), Portugal (50), Spain (1,059), the United Kingdom (129) and the United States (8,942).” (7)
What is Methyl bromide, you ask?
According to Global Response:
“Methyl bromide is a pesticide used to sterilize fields before planting crops like strawberries and tomatoes. A colorless and odorless gas, it is injected into the soil where it kills all living organisms. In such ‘dead soil,’ crops become increasingly reliant on synthetic chemicals.
Methyl bromide is extremely toxic - a ‘Class I Acute Toxin,’ according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Known effects of exposure include brain damage, harm to the nervous system, lungs, kidneys and liver - and death. Farmworkers and nearby residents often complain of dizziness, fatigue, muscle aches and mental confusion as a result of low-level exposure.”
But it must be necessary why else would we subject farmworkers and ourselves to the health risks, right? Not quite. Global Response again:
“The U.N. Methyl Bromide Technical Options Committee, composed of 68 scientists from 23 countries, concluded that alternatives exist, or are at an advanced stage of development, for more than 90 percent of methyl bromide uses. Dr. Jamie Liebman, staff scientist with Pesticide Action Network, found that for all of the major uses of this pesticide as a soil fumigant, there are examples of the same crops currently grown profitably, in the U.S. and other countries, without methyl bromide.
Holland banned methyl bromide in 1992, and Denmark, Sweden, Norway and
Finland followed in 1998. These countries, as well as Switzerland and Germany, grow strawberries, tomatoes and other crops successfully without methyl bromide.” (8)
If a poor country like Uganda can completely phase out the use of the ozone-depleting substance methyl bromide by 2007 where it’s mostly used in the flower industry certainly a rich country like the U.S. can. But as Fox News reported, “over the last three years, the Bush administration has repeatedly opposed or sought to weaken and delay multinational action to reduce dangerous chemicals.” (9) Part of it is the Bush administration’s adverse reaction to anything global in character (giving exemptions to the highly successful Montreal Protocol might be a wanted blow, for the Bush crowd, to widening global cooperation on other green pacts.) Mostly though it has to do with the fact “chemicals account for 9 percent of global trade.” (10)
Companies release an average of 2 to 5 new chemicals into our environment each day, with little testing for safety. (11) Worldwide production of chemical substances has increased enormously from 1 million tones in 1930 to 400 million tones today. (12) Yet, according to Zac Smith an editor at the Ecologist, “while money is poured into biotechnology, nanotechnology, and every other form of high-tech research, the campaign for reversing, let alone understanding” the correlation between chemicals and human health has yet begun. (13) And if the Bush administration has its way it never will.
Yves Engler recently finished his first book, Playing Left Wing from Hockey to Politics: The Making of a Student Activist.
Other Articles by Yves Engler
1. Financial Times, March 29, 2004.